Tuesday, January 27, 2015
in the bleak midwinter
The opening lines from Christina Rossetti's beautiful carol are cascading through my mind this morning as I look out at the wildness of the blizzard.
"In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
So beautiful it makes me want to cry. Both the song and the storm. Oh winter, here we all are, in it together. Let's think about warmer weather for a moment. Or at least a reminder of it - I took this photograph a few weeks ago but the view from here is very similar today - snow, apple tree, curtain. I saw these lace curtains in the island summer house of a dear friend, on a breezy, sunshiny day, and they were gently blowing around. The birds looked like they were flying. Now, I am not much of a lace-curtain kind of person. But. These. She told me where she found them, and I went out and bought three for our dining room windows, and now whenever I look up I see the birds, and in my mind's eye, the island, the breeze, the warm summer wind.
Speaking of which, the other song that's been stuck in my head lately is something I played while packing away our Christmas ornaments. Last fall I bought a turntable at a yardsale down the street, and I've started playing my vinyl records again, not least among them several Frank Sinatra albums I've owned forever. One has an old favorite, Summer Wind. Loooove it.
But none of that is really what I want to talk about. Not songs, not lace curtains, not the weather. Books, right? After some weeks of diligence, I am falling off the ancient literature wagon. Backsliding. Thanks to one book in particular. Ryan and I visited a bookseller friend last weekend, and he sold me a very nice first edition of Mark Twain's Notebook, edited and prepared for publication by Albert Bigelow Paine (Harper 1935). I thought of setting it aside but it was insistent, and as soon as I read the opening entries (loooove reading diaries) I was lost. 400 pages later all I want to read now is more Mark Twain. So. Good.
But that is also not what I really want to talk about. Which is the history of this book. That is, its known physical perambulations within the immediate vicinity. I bought it from my dear bookseller friend, who has himself owned it for 23 years. He bought it from the estate of a collector friend of his. This person was an avid buyer of books old and new, and used to be a regular customer of mine, at the first bookstore job I ever had, over 25 years ago. He'd call me up and ask me to tell him all about any new books we'd received in his areas of interest, before he'd make the trip to the store to see them in person. When I knew him he was elderly and rather frail, and usually traveled with an attendant. But back to the Mark Twain book. This collector bought it from another local bookseller, whose secret code is penciled inside the back cover. I wish I could crack this code and find out how long he owned it before selling it to the collector. Not to mention where he bought it in the first place. When I bought it, last Sunday, I brought it home and made careful pencil notes inside the front cover about all this, with names and dates. I wonder how long I'll own it, before it finds another home? I can't think about that for very long (memento mori and all that - too sad to contemplate, at least during a January blizzard, with old songs playing in my head). Well, I always wonder how books get from one place to another, and how long they linger with their keepers, and for once it is nice to actually know. And, sadness aside for a moment, I like to imagine this book's future, with other booksellers and collectors, as a valued, beloved object, one that brings the voice of this author so richly to life. It was such a pleasure to travel with him again, through these pages. What a writer.
Back to old songs for a moment. Mark Twain writes in his notebook that one of the most moving and pathetic things in the English language was, to him, (p. 319):
"...the refrain of a long-ago forgotten song, familiar to me in my earliest childhood: 'In the days when we went gypsying, a long time ago.'"
The pathos...! He also says, about his own fame (p.190):
"My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water."
He knew his own worth, during his lifetime, and yet he still undervalued himself. Well, some of us no longer care for wine. And we are made of water - we need water to live. Blizzard notwithstanding...
Monday, January 12, 2015
papery and painterly paperwork
A quiet snowy Monday in January is the perfect time for paperwork. Reading too, but every once in a while paperwork takes precedence. I'm deep into the literature of the Roman Empire in The Norton Anthology of Classical Literature (up to page 700 so far, yay me!), but that's not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I've gathered up all relevant receipts and printouts and bill stubs (still analog, don't judge) and am preparing to file our income tax. We have a lovely accountant who checks everything over for us and files electronically. Foremost in this small sea of paper - I say small because I really do have something of a microbusiness at this point - are the printouts, month by month, of all the books that sold in my antiques mall booth. I like looking these lists over, and remembering when and where I first bought the books, not to mention pricing them and putting them out for sale, and now, hey, many have sold and are on to new homes and new lives with other booklovers! The system keeps working! The books number in the hundreds, and it still feels exciting to me, even after many years of buying and selling. So what sold? Fiction and poetry top the list, followed by cookery, memoir-y type books in various fields, and little bits of everything else, spread out over every bookshop category imaginable. Or every category I have in my book booth, I should say. Here is a sampling, in no particular order:
many Patrick O'Brian novels (huzzah!)
The Road to Oxiana - Robert Byron (sold two copies this year!! of one of my all-time favorites!!)
Word Freak - Stefan Fatsis
Monster in a Box - Spalding Gray
Bound for Glory - Woody Guthrie
lots of David Sedaris
current bestsellers including The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and several Nora Ephron books and anything I can get my hands on by Neil Gaiman
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
lots of Thoreau (maybe my bestselling author of all time)
My Life in France by Julia Child (so, so good)
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
poetry by Yeats, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Pushkin, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck, Gwendolyn Brooks, T.S. Eliot
tons more novels, by Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Stephen King (local boy...), Zora Neale Hurston, Fanny Burney, Mark Twain, Lorrie Moore, Wilkie Collins, Conrad, Dickens, Hawthorne, Mark Helprin (two copies of Winter's Tale!), Richard Russo, Marilynne Robinson, David Mitchell, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby
I haven't even mentioned Maine books, or nautical books, or history, travel, religion, art, gardening, nature, how-to, children's, etc. Lots sold from all these categories. My favorite might be classics, not just because that is my winter reading project this year, but also because I just LOVE that people still value these books, and buy them, and read them, or even simply intend to read them. On my lists from this year are Sophocles, Plutarch, Virgil, Plato, then on to Chaucer, and the Kalevala, Hildegard of Bingen, up to The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse and beyond.
Also sold are many books on how to write, including old favorites Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, which has to be the most light-a-fire-under-you book ever for wanna-be writers, and On Writing by Stephen King, which runs a close second. See, hard evidence that people still read good books, and still want to learn to write good books too, isn't that a hopeful thing?
One more - some terrific books are gone from the books-about-books section, including a paperback copy of 84, Charing Cross Road.
As is evident from these titles and authors, I'm not selling many rare books these days. After buying and selling some wonderful and scarce (and expensive!) books in years past, both on the internet and at shows and in the little bookshop that could, I now have no real outlet for such items, and frankly I'm not finding them anyway, anymore, when I go out book hunting. The good folks at libraries and thrift shops are sifting their stock for rarities before anything ever comes close to the sales floor. I've made my peace with that, and while I still love to look, I'm not holding my breath thinking that a great first edition is going to be recognized and snapped up by me - not the way I used to find modern firsts, and real antiquarian books, fifteen years ago. (Note to Fate, or whomever: I do remain open to this possibility, though, so please do not forsake me! I shall remain vigilant!) All that is to say that I am content to scout around for the everyday secondhand books that I happen to love to sell and sell again, old favorites and recent favorites both. It's a win-win, since I get to book-hunt, and find new stuff to read, and also sell, on a manageable scale that leaves me all the painting time I could ever wish for, and then some.
Speaking of which, I glance back at the aforementioned paperwork and am very happy to report that is the first year in which income from my paintings has overtaken and surpassed my book income. A milestone. Whatever made me choose these professions, destined to keep me on the church-mouse side of impecuniousness for so long, I do not know (well, I have inklings...), but what I do know is that they both pay huge dividends in happiness and contentment, and I hesitate to ask for more than that. Why should I, when this life is fine as it is - I mean, who gets to do this...? Oh, I do! I thank my lucky stars for this surfeit of success. And think it's about time to find a winter library sale. I need to restock.
Monday, January 05, 2015
new year, new me?
Nope, same old same old. Which suits me fine. As Stephen Maturin says, often, in Patrick O'Brian's novels, "May no new thing arise." (New things being generally suspect and usually disruptive.) Thus in the coming year I am hoping for more of the same - reading, writing, painting, gardening. Oceans of quiet.
To that end I have cleared my decks, not for action necessarily, but for clarity, certainly. This is the time of open horizons. My painting studio is clean and awaiting the arrival of new work. Nothing remains on my bedside table except my current reading in ancient authors. I am making headway in one book in particular, The Norton Book of Classical Literature edited by Bernard Knox (Norton 1993). I brought this home from my book booth at the antiques mall. I see from my bookseller code inside the back cover that I've owned this book since 2005 and bought it for two dollars at a library sale. I had it priced at eight bucks, then marked it down to six. And still no buyers, after all this time, so home with me it has come once again. And glad I am, since it has proved to be a perfect extended introduction to the ancient writers of Greece and Rome. Bernard Knox says in his preface (p.23):
"This book is no more than a sampler. The texts have been chosen with one idea in mind: to whet the reader's appetite for more."
He does just that, giving us a chronological anthology from Homer in the late 8th century B.C. up to Marcus Aurelius and Saint Augustine in the early centuries A.D. Since I'd already read The Iliad and The Odyssey some years back, I skipped over his selections from those and began with Hesiod (7th century B.C.?), and since then, a week ago, with the help of a mild cold picked up at Christmas and lots of subsequent rest time, I've logged over five hundred pages in this wonderful book. And encountered so many authors I'd never read anything to speak of, unless quoted briefly elsewhere - Hesiod, Archilochus, Alcman, Solon, Anacreon, Simonides, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, well, the list goes on and on. I have read bits of Sappho, Pindar, and Plato before, but never with any kind of sustained attention. And in this particular book I still have the literature of Rome ahead of me - Lucretius, Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Livy, Ovid, Juvenal, etc. I thought this was going to be a textbooky kind of collection, classics-lite, but no, not at all.
Why read all this dusty old stuff, anway? Does it matter? Does anything matter? I dismiss these as January thoughts and instead look at the beautiful language I'm encountering, and its relevance. I will be forever grateful to Bernard Knox for bringing to my attention lines such as these:
"... it is best to do things
Since we are only human, and disorder
is our worst enemy" - Hesiod, The Works and Days, "When to Plow" (p.195)
"The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one.
One good one." - Archilochus, 14 (p.206; thoughts of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle naturally arise)
"...oh I wish, I wish I could be a seabird
Who with halcyons skims the surf-flowers of the sea water
with careless heart, a sea-blue-colored and sacred waterfowl." - Alcman, 1 (p.214)
"...In the honey and spice of a summer night." - Alcman, 2 (p.215)
"She was in love with what was not there; it has happened to many.
There is a mortal breed most full of futility.
In contempt of what is at hand, they strain into the future,
hunting impossibilities on the wings of ineffectual hopes." - Pindar, Third Pythian Ode (p.260)
"I will be small in small things, great among great.
I will work out the divinity that is busy within my mind
and tend the means that are mine.
If it were luxury and power God gave me
I hope I should find glory that would rise higher here after." - Pindar, ibid (p.263)
My skin prickles, hedgehog-like, as I read along - human nature seems to have changed so little over the centuries. What interests us? Love, fate, death, war, travel, humor, nature, human relationships, divine relationships. Ways and means have changed, but the essentials remain. And great writers remind us of this, again and again, no matter how long-ago they are. (I know I say this regarding almost all the books I mention here - please bear with me as I continue to err on the side of praise.)
As I got into reading the tragedies and drama, Homer came back to mind, and I remembered how repelled I was at all the blood and thunder of his epics. But that, along with every type of murder and mayhem you can imagine, is a huge part of these old stories, and judging from what's on tv at the moment (not that I have a tv...), we like a certain amount of this as entertainment, and always have. I find myself usually falling on the side of the pastoral, instead. I am loving the poets, their lyrics about nature, love, and the twists and turns of fate. I am grimacing my way through Antigone and Thucydides. The ancient gods set up terrible situations for hapless mortals and let them play out, intervening or not, if justice or whim calls for it. They are worth looking at too (obviously, not to sound like a complete simpleton here), squarely in the face, although maybe just once. That might be all I can stand.
The work of the translators Knox has chosen from must be mentioned, for it is their choice of language I am responding to, as well as the storylines. His choices are old and new, including Lattimore and Fagles, and some are more poetic and some more severe, but all readable in the best ways. The long introduction by Knox and his brief paragraphs introducing each author throughout the book are also so well-written and interesting, they left me wondering (as happened with Moses Hadas in his Ancilla to Classical Reading a few months ago) who he was and why he was championing the classics. I've seen his books before but never read any, so I had no idea. His 2010 New York Times obituary enlightened me, as did this New Republic essay by G.W. Bowersock, "The Warrior-Humanist."
I'll ask myself again, Why read the classics? Well, winter is a severe time, and a beautiful time. Life itself is severe and beautiful. These ancient authors mirror that state of affairs and I long for it, it feels like water and food and sunshine. In fact when my sister was ill last fall, I read some passages from The Consolation of Philosophy (Boethius; 524 A.D.; the book that got me started on this year's winter reading project) aloud to her, and at one point asked if she wanted me to continue. She said "YES, it's like cool water in the desert."
As usual, I could go on and on, and another day, I'm sure I will. Until then:
"...the great unwritten, unshakable traditions.
They are alive, not just today or yesterday:
they live forever, from the first of time,
and no one knows when first they saw the light." - Sophocles, Antigone (p.374)